The 12th Annual Book Festival at the National Mall

Under a white, high-peaked frame tent, a large crowd huddled close to the stage, where celebrated Dominican-American author Junot Diaz was reading from his latest work, “This Is How You Lose Her.” From the energetic and appreciative applause that Diaz got for his reading, a passer-by who only heard the sounds could’ve been forgiven for thinking that Justin Bieber was making an appearance for his fans. The turnout for the 12th annual Book Festival on the National Mall clearly proves that reading isn’t dead in the D.C. area.

Hosted by the Library of Congress, the festival had over ten tents, or “pavilions” featuring different activities. Author presentations, a storytelling stage, book sales and fun for the kids were some of the things my friend Qursum and I experienced that day.

But not before we went to join long, snaking queues that formed in front of book signing booths.

The festival attracts big names, and this year, bestselling writers like R.L Stine, Jill Abramson and Mario Vargas Llosa made appearances. We queued up for autographs of Vargas Llosa and Junot Diaz. Once the authors showed up, the volunteers in deep pink t-shirts did a great job of keeping the flowing moving smoothly. No one was allowed to linger and chat with authors for more than half a minute.

Books now signed, we made our way towards the “pavilions.” That’s when I spotted a volunteer holding a sign with the name of an author that stopped me in my tracks: Bob Woodward. I clutched at Qursum’s shoulder. “Let’s go meet him!” She agreed.

We hurried to find the end of the line before it got any longer. Then I realised that neither of us had any of his books on hand. His appearance must have been a last-minute inclusion, as he wasn’t listed in the program. Leaving Qursum in the queue, I half-hopped, half-ran over to the book sale tent to procure two copies of his latest work, “The Price of Politics.” Within a half-hour, I had a signed copy.

Woodward chose to connect with fans by asking who the book was for or commenting on their names. He must have thought mine interesting, because he said: “What a great name. Is that you?”

I’d just met the current editor of the Washington Post. The reporter that was part of a legendary duo that broke the Nixon-era Watergate scandal, and then refused to give up his source when questioned! My media nerd was elated. This made my month!

Now that we’d done the best part of the festival, we rounded out the day by paying the Let’s Read America kids tent a visit. From the pop-up television studio to the Lego playground, everything in there was wonderfully interactive. Fun as it was, I couldn’t help thinking that with all these distractions that had little to do with encouraging kids to read, this tent was really designed to entertain the kids. Grown ups were the ones taking in the messages, and many of them consumerist in nature. They watched their kids climb into a glossy, mahogany red Wells Fargo stagecoach. They were offered AT & T souvenirs. They spent time in the Storybook Station, sponsored by Target. The tent did also get a strong showing by PBS Kids, ReadAloud.org, the Washington Post and a few publishing houses.

Well, without all this advertising moolah, I suppose they wouldn’t have been able to hand out oversized, reusable pink shopping bags quite so generously. Since we have a five cent tax per plastic bag in the District and in Montgomery County, Md., it’s been really useful for grocery shopping!

But for beginner writers that attended the festival, perhaps the most valuable thing of the entire day occurred during a Q&A session with Junot Diaz. When asked if he had a specific method to his work, the answer was simple:

“Write like you are talking to a few people you know. If you try to write for the whole world, you won’t write anything at all.”

Be sure to check out the festival next year!

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